WMUK’s Local Government and Education Reporter Sehvilla Mann wanted more “pieces of the puzzle” to find out what’s happening in local government. So nearly two years ago she started requesting the work calendars of top administrators in Kalamazoo County, and the cities of Kalamazoo and Portage.
Mann was not looking for their private calendars, but wanted to track their activities as public officials. Her request was for the work calendar from the previous week of the Kalamazoo County Administrator and the City Managers of Kalamazoo and Portage. She says Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act includes many exemptions, things that can’t be obtained under FOIA, but work calendars are not on that list. The information in Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s calendar helped expose the corruption inside city hall.
Michigan Coalition for Open Government President Jane Briggs-Bunting says work calendars are documents that help track what public officials are doing.
"Public bodies and public officials are employees of the public. And they have to be held accountable. One of the reasons that a calendar is important is that it tells you what that particular public official, usually elected, is doing with the taxpayer’s time and the taxpayer’s money. "
The first request Mann made was to Kalamazoo County. After a delay, the county gave its answer, and started sharing the work calendar of then-County Administrator Terrence Neuzil. The calendar from the past week was sent by e-mail until Neuzil was placed on leave, then resigned.
In the aftermath of Neuzil’s departure, it was revealed that he had strongly objected to sharing his calendar. In his personnel file, released after his resignation, Neuzil wanted to know if there were grounds for rejecting WMUK’s request. Thom Canny, who was Corporate Counsel for the County at the time, informed Neuzil that the calendar was subject to FOIA. Since Neuzil’s departure, the calendars of former Interim County Administrator John Faul and current Administrator Tracie Moored have been regularly e-mailed to Mann.
The calendars for the City Manager of Portage and Kalamazoo were sought under the Freedom of Information Act in the spring of 2016.
The City of Portage initially denied the request, saying that Portage City Manager Larry Shaffer's calendar included both personal and work-related appointments. Mann says that doesn’t hold up under Michigan law, which says in that case the personal information is to be redacted before the document is sent.
Appeals of FOIA requests in Portage go to the City Council, so it would have required a public vote. As WMUK prepared to make its appeal, a letter was sent to the Mayor and members of the City Council. Mann then received a phone call from Portage City Manager Larry Shaffer saying he would share his calendar.
The City of Kalamazoo initially approved the request for City Manager Jim Ritsema’s calendar. But City Attorney Clyde Robinson then said the request was being denied. Robinson argued that a government official’s calendar does not have to be shared if it is shown only to “immediate support staff.” He cited a federal court decision, Consumer Federation of America v. Department of Agriculture, to support the city's case.
Consumer Federation concerned the calendars of six officials at the USDA, which had been requested under federal FOIA. The court found that all but one of those calendars were in fact subject to disclosure. The exempt calendar belonged to a low-ranking official who shared his schedule only with his secretary.
Late in 2017, Mann contacted Ritsema, Robinson and Mayor Bobby Hopewell who wrote the city’s letter denying the appeal of the request. She said that soon WMUK would be airing a story about the calendar requests and denials, and offered them the chance to comment. Mann also noted that Portage City Manager Larry Shaffer had granted the request, and asked the City of Kalamazoo to specify how many people receive the city manager's calendar. Ritsema told Mann after the December 18th City Commission meeting that although the city believed its legal position was correct, he would begin sharing his calendar after the first of the year.
Michigan Coalition for Open Government President Jane Briggs-Bunting says the pursuit of government documents requires persistence. And she says local governments know that they aren’t likely to end up in court.
In the Michigan area, it’s not common that it happens anymore, because the budgets are not allowing it. And public bodies and public officials understand this and know this and so it makes ‘no’ a lot easier to say when you know you’re not going to be taken to court, and lose, and have to pay attorneys’ fees and court costs.
And as Mann says there’s a public interest in being able to see what’s going on in local government.